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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century

Historical Research: Interrogating Memoirs and Recollections

Many of the documents in The Capital and the Bay are memoirs, recollections, or autobiographies—accounts of past events as seen through the lens of someone’s personal experience. Using these documents illustrates that specific kinds of sources may require that particular questions be asked in interrogating those sources. For example, in using memoirs, recollections, or autobiographies, we should consider the following:

  • Who published the work and why?
  • Do persons of all social classes and ethnic and racial groups have access to these publishing resources? What does that suggest about such sources?
  • What are the writer’s qualifications to comment on particular topics? Was he/she directly involved in the events covered? Is he/she well connected socially and politically? Is he/she an able observer? Does he/she have a class bias?
  • When were the recollections written—near the time the events covered in the recollection actually occurred or much later? How were they written—based on notes, journals, and letters or based on memory?

In responding to the first question, you may note that white women and men and African American men are represented in the memoirs and autobiographies, but African American women and Native Americans are not represented. Develop a hypothesis about why this might be the case and how it biases the historical record.

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